Modern superstition has two tentacles, one being rooted in the theosophy of the Far East, the other stemming from the heart of the technology of the West. It is more dangerous to the rationality of the public than its traditional competitor in that modern superstition is engulfed in scientific plumes. Pat Robertson’s superstition may appeal to the uneducated septuagenarians, but it is, for the most part, ignored by the literate public. In contrast, modern superstition is characterized by an association with modern physics. It uses such scientific words as field, energy, and quantum alongside such exotic words as karma, chakra, and qi, creating a salmagundi which is attractive to the intellectual population that is scientifically semi-literate.
The first tentacle, Eastern mysticism, has had a profound influence on the philosophical thinking of a few notable physicists of the early twentieth century; a philosophical tendency which provided ammunition for some physicists in the late 1960s to establish a bogus parallelism between Eastern mysticism and modern physics.
The second tentacle, is a kind of mysticism that is instigated by the computer revolution of the end of the twentieth century and promulgated by a new cohort of mystics, the technagogues. This mysticism is based on a far-fetched interpretation of computer coding which suggests that reality – the “It” – is but a manifestation of a non-material computer code – the “Bit.” Being rooted in the technology that defines our civilization, this mysticism can mislead even the most educated sector of the general public. In my posts and pages on this blog, I will try to meticulously blow the scientific plume of these technagogues and unmask the naked mysticism of their dogma by carefully analyzing the famous “It-from-Bit”‘s content, absurd syllogisms, and unscientific methodology, in light of a detailed examination of the nature of science.
One obvious manifestation of modern superstition is quack science. Quack science is no longer limited to “discoveries” made by some wackos who, after reading an article in Popular Mechanics or Reader’s Digest, decide that they are sufficiently knowledgeable to repudiate Einstein’s theory of relativity, or to propose a new theory of the creation of the universe. More and more professional, reputable scientists are turning to philosophical views that are decidedly anti-scientific. Unfortunately, this trend was set by some of the founders of the quantum theory.
As the power of organized religion waned in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, seekers of spirituality found a ready-made alternative to it in the Eastern theosophy. The integration of matter with spirit was particularly appealing to those who were drawn to the emerging power and universality of science and disappointed by the anti-material teachings of the traditional religions. (N.B. At the same time that the western religions were teaching abstinence and warned against sexual desires, some Eastern theosophies taught to worship gigantic statues of phalluses!) The philosophy of the Far East became more and more mainstream, so that by the end of the nineteenth century many intellectuals, including some great physicists, were exposed to – and became admirers of – that philosophy. Although the physics of these physicists was not – could not be – affected by their philosophical inclinations, their Eastern mystical philosophy was dramatically tainted by the new discoveries in physics.
By publicizing their anti-scientific philosophy, scientists do the deadliest damage to the edifice of science and the scientific literacy of the public, because their attack is coming from within. Think about it: the slightest attack on the Democratic Party by Obama does a thousand times more damage to that Party than millions of harsh attacks by Rush Limbaugh. It is unfortunate that outrageous claptrap such as what you’ll read in the following have gone mostly unchallenged by the scientific community, leading even the intellectual segment of the population to believe in them. One of the missions of this site is to expose the nonsense that is being sold as “scientific,” especially when it comes from scientists and other professionals.
In one of his more than thirty appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Gary Zukav, the best selling author who speciously applies the laws of physics to the conduct of the soul, comforts a couple who has lost a baby. Except for the round table and the holding of hands, the show has all the appearances of a se’ance with Zukav as the medium and Oprah as his assistant; and when Oprah, in response to the father’s request to contact his son’s soul, declares that everybody in the room feels the presence of the soul, and the camera zooms in on a few women wiping away tears, the spiritual authority of the author is sealed, the sale of hundreds of thousands of his books guaranteed, and the indoctrination of their readers’ minds with superstition accomplished.
In the heyday of the countercultural revolution of the 1960s, Fritjof Capra, a physicist, sitting by the ocean one late summer afternoon, “sees” the atoms of his body participating in a cosmic dance of energy with the atoms of the elements. He “feels” the rhythm of the cascades of energy coming down from outer space and “hears” its sound, and at that moment he knows that this is the Dance of Shiva, the Lord of Dancers. It is then and there that he finds a connection between Taosim and modern physics, between spirits and matter, between the subjective spirituality of Eastern mysticism and the objective materiality of modern science. The book that he writes about this mystical experience finds millions of gullible readers around the world, who are entranced by its advertised connection between the rationality of physics and the spirituality of Eastern theosophy.
Equipped with the philosophical bludgeon of emergence, Robert Laughlin, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, pummels the rationality of physics “from the bottom down.” The breakthroughs of physics, all of them without exception, turn into serendipitous discoveries. Mathematics, the language of nature as attested by scholars from Plato to Einstein, becomes a tool for the mastery of the universe. Nuclear physics becomes responsible for the catastrophic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General relativity without which GPS would not work, becomes a speculative theory hiding a skeleton in its closet. He announces the end of quantum physics because of the impracticality of its application to the every day phenomena.
Stephen Wolfram, a computer genius and a precocious physicist who founded one of the most successful scientific computing companies, goes into a self-imposed 10-year seclusion to write a 1200-page tome intended to replace physics – and all the other sciences – with “a new kind of science”. The reality of this new science is the collection of images and animations that come to life on the desktop of a computer using certain rules applied to cellular automata. This desktop reality is the primary source of information of the “new kind of science,” and if it disagrees with the physical reality, then the latter is declared wrong. The theory of evolution and the second law of thermodynamics are just two of the casualties of the edicts of this physicist’s desktop reality. The financial might and the internet savvy of the author have turned his book into a best seller, despite its absurd premise, its trivialization of important and glorification of unimportant physical concepts, and its inclusion of many blunders and swindles.
Such prevalence of the specious anti-science has injurious ramifications. Steve Jobs was the victim of his obdurate belief in alternative medicine. Mitt Romney did an about-face on global warming after Rush Limbaugh blaringly counted him out of the Republican primaries. Adults in the United States spend close to $34 billion out of pocket annually on alternative medicine, while the government can afford to spend only $5 billion on cancer research. Two thirds of Americans want creationism to be taught along with evolution in public schools, and three quarters of them accept at least one form of paranormal belief.